We live in a world still blighted by homophobia and transphobia, regardless of the advances of recent years. I could point to the growing number of anti-trans laws, the fact that 59% of queer and trans students report feeling unsafe at school, the gob-smacking rates of violence against Black and Latinx trans women, but, by now, we should all be aware of the realities.
On the flip side, science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction allow us to explore and explode the limits of what’s possible, and not just when it comes to time travel, space, and magic. Why, when we can imagine any world, would we choose to create one where queer and trans people are still oppressed? Many recent works of science fiction and fantasy ask this question, imagining futures or alternate universes where queerness and gender nonconformity are presented as the norm within the world of the book.
In Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose the Time War, a queer love story features as the central conflict but only because Blue and Red fight for opposing forces in the time war. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun features queer relationships and identities in every direction, including a character who uses xe/xir pronouns, all presented without any real conflict or comment. Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy is much adored by queer fans because the books are explicitly for and about “trash lesbians” (I love you, Gideon Nav). And though the books deal heavily with trauma and violence and girls with dark, twisty insides, those things aren’t related to them being so-called trash lesbians. Kameron Hurley’s play with gender and sexuality in The Light Brigade is really unique—we don’t get gendered pronouns for the narrator until about 2/3rds of the way through the book, by which time, said narrator has already slept with people of any and all genders. In Karen Osborne’s Memory Wars, Kate and Ash’s story is tragic (no, seriously, this one broke me)—but it’s not tragic because they’re queer. Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series is pretty well known for its casual treatment of queerness, inter-species relationships being, of course, a much bigger deal. And finally, Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan duology, especially A Desolation Called Peace, features an artful queer romance as well as, perhaps, the most simultaneously beautiful and realistic lesbian sex scene I’ve ever read (and that’s saying something).
In these books, and countless others I haven’t mentioned, people love who they love, are who they are, and it’s no big deal. It’s a necessary turn away from troubling tropes like “Bury Your Gays,” from characters whose sexuality or gender is the most important thing about them, and from stories where queer and trans people seem to only exist to showcase homophobic and transphobic violence. It’s truly refreshing to see myself reflected in stories that aren’t just about trauma and oppression.
I’m a queer millennial who came of age as the conversation around queerness in America shifted drastically under my feet. Tyler Clementi died in the first few weeks of my freshman year of high school, but by the time I was starting college, that same high school (an admittedly progressive one) had a gender-neutral bathroom expressly for use by trans and gender non-conforming students. In many parts of the country and world (not everywhere, and not all the time), it has become substantially easier and safer to be queer and trans.
In some ways, I feel like popular representation of queer and trans people in media has traced that same, optimistic trajectory, moving from doom-and-gloom to happy-go-lucky. As a teenager, I remember searching (and searching and searching and searching) for any queer content I could find. My choices were pretty much: stories where queer kids get kicked out of their houses, stories where queer people are victims of hate crimes, Glee, or all of the above. Now (cue the “when I was your age” speech), it seems like there’s no shortage of uplifting queer fiction. But at the same time, as I’ve said, in reality, we’re nowhere near utopia.
So, when I read books like those mentioned above (all of which I loved) I can’t help but think “that’s nice, but… something doesn’t feel right.” Which makes me wonder: what do these imagined universes say about what we think queer- and transness will be in the future? Will being queer or trans even be seen as specific identities if and when they’re no longer seen as marginalized? Is that we want?
I can’t help but ask what is lost when we write out homophobia and transphobia completely, removing them from our fictional worlds. Pure queer love and attraction are part of my queer experience, yes. And I face the same challenges as anyone else (queer, straight, cis, or trans) figuring out how to be close to other people. But my queer experience is also defined by the fact that it’s counter cultural, made in the image of what it resists. I don’t think queer and trans relationships and people are, no matter how much we want them to be, “just like everyone else(’s).”
And so, I think what’s missing for me—and others can and should disagree on this—is an acknowledgment that we are different. Queer identity involves an active questioning of dominant culture and norms; it blurs and deconstructs binaries and finds gaps in conventional logic and perspectives. To be queer is inherently to challenge dominant culture—but when there’s no dominant cis/straight culture in a book for characters to challenge and respond to, a vital aspect of queer and trans identity is flattened, nuance erased. I don’t mean this as a critique of any of the books mentioned above. I just want to point out that, though those futures are happy ones to imagine, they might not be the only right way to imagine queer and trans representation.
Some authors, though, take up queer- and transness in a way that walks the line between all-out trauma porn and queer utopia. In Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree, queer love triumphs in a world where some homophobia is hinted at but not explicitly depicted. Plus, who doesn’t like forbidden love? In Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted, Esther gets to escape a fascist, purity-driven society and we get to come along for the ride. Elizabeth Bear’s Machine has a multispecies cast of nonplussed queer, nonbinary, and trans characters, but pays subtle homage to humanity’s dirty, “atavistic” history when inhabitants of a generation ship fleeing a dying earth awake after being in suspension for hundreds of years. In The Future of Another Timeline, Annalee Newitz gives us a story where, even if we do see oppression play out, fighting against it and asking what liberation means is The Point. Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts and Sorrowland both show us worlds where extreme homophobia and transphobia exist. But in those worlds, queer people get whole, healthy sexualities and affirming character development. In Sorrowland, in particular, we get to watch Vern unlearn internalized shame and make peace with her desires.
These books can teach us that imagining a queer and trans future or alternative universe doesn’t necessarily have to mean a complete absence of hate or prejudice. It means valuing queer and trans people despite and because of the hate and prejudice they face and endure. I’d argue that we need both types of narratives. There’s a place in SFF for normalized queer representation that frees queer and trans characters from dominant straight/cis culture. It’s genuinely exciting to imagine what that world would look like. But even if we get there as a society, we won’t ever be free from our history, and from the struggles that define our identities. Stories that carefully balance depictions of trauma and liberation, that walk that necessary line, show us how to envision a future where liberation isn’t conflated with sameness, where the potential of queer and trans communities can be imagined and celebrated without our essential differences being flattened or erased.
Emma Leff (she/her) is an avid reader of queer SFF as well as an arts-education administrator, theatre artist, and haver of niche hobbies. She hails from Chicago, IL and holds a B.A. from Hampshire College in youth studies and theatre. Currently, she’s working on an academic journal article about youth artists and the adults who support them. It will be finished eventually. When not reading or working to provide young people with transformative arts experiences, Emma can be found riding her bike excessively or making her own clothes. You can find her on Twitter.